Music » Music Feature

The Byrds, John Hiatt, We Are Scientists, And More

This Week's Concert Previews


John HiattThere are two songwriters coexisting in John Hiatt's body, one magnifying his quirky charm and the other swelling his bank account and raising his profile. On the one hand, Hiatt has a propensity for writing incredibly personal songs, brimming with intimate details of his life and populated with his patented brand of challenging phrasing, loping syncopation and breathless lyrical content, all shoehorned into his inventive and accommodating melodies. On the other hand, Hiatt is a brilliantly universal writer with an almost supernatural ability to concoct songs that blend like a chameleon into the set lists of everyone from Bonnie Raitt and Three Dog Night to Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop. When Hiatt writes personally, it's almost impossible to cover him, and when he writes universally, it's almost impossible to resist covering him.

These two aspects of Hiatt's creative mind-set are all over his latest album, Same Old Man. "Old Days," the album's opener, is a fabulously funny scrapbook of Hiatt's early experiences on the blues circuit, opening for John Lee Hooker and Sonny Terry, and would sound stilted and off coming from anyone else. Right on its heels, "Love You Again" is a gorgeous and rootsy evocation of second chances that any gifted songwriter would be proud to call his or her own. That dichotomy runs through Same Old Man as Hiatt applies his warmly creaking voice and engaging melodies to songs that are uniquely his own ("Ride My Pony," "Same Old Man") and others that easily lend themselves to translation ("Cherry Red," "On With You"). Hiatt saves his two triumphs for last, channeling John Prine on the title track and Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan/"I Am, I Said"-era Neil Diamond on the stirring closer "Let's Give This Love a Try." Hiatt's facility for writing infinitely coverable songs has allowed him the financial and creative freedom to fashion albums like Same Old Man that are both wonderfully off-kilter and oddly satisfying all at once. Matt King opens at 8:30 p.m. at House of Blues (308 Euclid Ave., 216.523.2583). Tickets: $32-$75. - Brian Baker

Party Star Tour

Not to be confused with a Paris Hilton event, the "Party Star Tour" features a collection of five pop-punk-screamo acts that will have you reaching for the earplugs. One of the hottest bands from this tour is "Dance Gavin Dance," a group whose screaming vocals and clean soloing are distinctive on its popular tune "And I Told Them I Invented." Secret & Whisper and Lower Definition also take pop melodies and turn them inside out with snarling screams. A Static Lullaby and Four Letter Lie round out the bill. The show starts at 7 p.m. at the Agora Ballroom (5000 Euclid Ave.,Ê216.881.6700). Tickets: $12. - Ryan MacLennan

Watermelon Slim & The Workers

While we watch one Vietnam veteran take on the campaign trail, it's refreshing to have another one sing the blues with the knowledge of someone who actually lived them. A former truck driver, small-time criminal and watermelon farmer (hence his stage name), Bill Homans learned to play slide guitar while he lingered in a hospital bed in Saigon. Upon returning from service, he became a fervent anti-war activist in his native Boston, and while he struggled to make a living by doing a series of odd jobs, he somehow managed to go to school, later earning degrees in history and journalism. Onstage, Slim demonstrates a friendly demeanor, telling stories about his life and career in between original songs and covers of classic blues tunes such as "Mannish Boy" and "Smokestack Lightning." He's an expert on both the slide guitar and harmonica, and even though his voice has not been the same since a near-fatal heart attack in 2002, he soldiers on with no signs of ever wanting to quit, seemingly enjoying every moment with more gusto than ever. "Everything I do now has a sharper pleasure to it," he says about life on his website after almost facing death. "I've lived a fuller life than most people could in two - if my plane went down tomorrow, I'd go out on top." The show starts at 9 p.m. at the Winchester Tavern (11212 Madison Ave., 216.226.5681). Tickets: $12. - Ernest Barteldes

The Softrocks

Lead singer Mike Sapiro doesn't have a pretty voice. It's ragged and at times wailing. And yet for the Softrocks, it works. Their second album, Summer Apocalypse, is the kind of release that will have every alternative publication calling them another need-to-hear indie act. While that's true, to place them into the indie genre is too easy. When Sapiro sings, "I know all the music made by those charmers," it's clear the band has no desire to be another group of hipsters. While Sapiro's voice sounds a bit raw throughout the album - especially on opener "Snakes of Summer" - he's also able to sound endearing and almost pretty during other songs, such as the fairy-tale-like "Elder of Zion." He makes sure to never overpower his bandmates, who reinforce the collaborative effort of the music. The Softrocks may not sound like the prettiest band, but their earnest lyrics and solid music might convince you otherwise. Coffinberry and Clouds Forming Crowns open at 10 p.m. at the Matinee (2527 W. 25th St., 330.252.0272). Tickets: $5. - Brittany Moseley

Bodies of Water

Los Angeles foursome Bodies of Water has had a busy year. It self-released its debut, Ears Will Pop & Eyes Will Blink, to plenty of blog-olades in July 2007. It then caught the attention of Secretly Canadian records, which promptly re-issued Ears to more acclaim. The band hit the road earlier this year with Sons & Daughters, a jaunt sandwiched around the recording of the recently released A Certain Feeling. The new record finds the band continuing in its Polyphonic Spree-like vein of expansive, rollicking and often borderline-hymnal rock. It kicks up a large sound for such a small band, and album highlights "Darling, Be Here" and "Gold, Tan, Peach and Grey" play like mini-suites, with distinct movements and the band making a (mostly) joyful noise. BoW also hits on some new sounds, with "Water Here" approximating disco and "If I Were a Bell" culminating in a distinctly krautrock-like passage for its latter half. But the band also sticks to the tried-and-true, with intense vocal interplay being the hallmark of most of Feeling. Get to the show early; you've got to figure all that shouting takes a little out of them around the halfway point. Parts & Labor's Dan Friels headlines and Port O'Brien starts things off at 10 p.m. at the Grog Shop (2785 Euclid Heights Blvd.). Tickets: $8. - Chris Drabick

We Are Scientists

Saturday's We Are Scientists show at the Grog Shop will be different from the one they played there a few years ago. For one thing, the band is a member short. Keith Murray and Chris Cain decided to keep the group as a duo after drummer Michael Tapper left. The Brooklyn-based twosome also released another album, Brain Thrust Mastery, in the spring. They'll have double the amount of material to choose from. But if the show is anything like the last time they hit Cleveland, it'll be one hell of a toe-tapping fest. The fun-loving boys know how to throw a dance party, keeping almost every song up-tempo and jittery. All that fun doesn't stop between songs - the guys make witty, sarcastic comments to egg the crowd on. Fellow Brooklynites Oxford Collapse open the show. A birthplace isn't the only thing they have in common with We Are Scientists - this trio also shares a love of spontaneous fun. They'll get the energy levels high with their own brand of art-pop, blending dirty, distorted guitars and half-sung, half-shouted vocals. Their new album, Bits, is just out on Sub Pop, so expect a mix of tracks from that and their three previous albums. Saints opens at 9 p.m. at the Grog Shop (2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., 216.321.5588). Tickets: $12. - Danielle Sills

Roger McGuinn

 The Byrds exist in the same sphere as the Velvets, Stones, Beatles and Beach Boys, though rarely do they get their due. Leader Roger McGuinn's 12-string Rickenbacker guitar (usually picked five-string-banjo style) spawned a much replicated jingle-jangle sound whose legacy extends from Big Star to the Smiths, taking up residence in power, psych, folk, indie and twee pop. Already a fine guitarist, McGuinn began working as a songwriter for Bobby Darin in the Brill Building when he was just 20, in 1962. "I tuned my ear to pop music in a real analytical way," says McGuinn. "Then the Beatles came out and that was a real big breakthrough. It's what got me to mix folk and rock." The Byrds were always characterized by their harmonies as much as their sound, which moved from folk-rock to a more psychedelic vibe, highlighted by the hit "Eight Miles High." David Crosby was fired just prior to their fifth album, and McGuinn brought in a piano-playing Gram Parsons to create the seminal Sweetheart of the Rodeo, arguably the first alt-country album. McGuinn continues to play (generally solo acoustic) and has been posting traditional and original blues/country-folk songs online for several years. John Sebastian opens at 8 p.m. at Cain Park (Superior and Lee roads, 216.371.3000). Tickets: $27-$35. - Chris Parker

The Cute Lepers

 With full-throttling punk-rockers the Briefs undergoing a trial separation that sounds like divorce, guitarist Steve E. Nix took the band's hooks and punchy, infectious energy and housed them in his new three-piece, the Cute Lepers. With his debut, Can't Stand Modern Music, he beat his former compadre Daniel J. Travanti (Modern Action) to the punch and casts a shadow that will be difficult to escape. While still mainlining old-school British punk, the Lepers are less Buzzcocks than Vibrators, spiking nervy new-wave shimmy more than anxious guitar rumble. The bite-size songs and shout-along backing vocals recall the Undertones on the careening, wild youth paean "Modern Pests" and Rancid on the slashing, fist-shaking "It's Summertime, Baby." The arrangements and the sentiments ("So Screwed Up," "Terminal Boredom") aren't unusual, but they're accompanied by a good-time spirit like old Cheap Trick, proving again that three chords and the right attitude are all it takes. Which isn't to disparage Nix's writing. Often, the 150-second blasts are packaged in such bright, eye-catching colors that it distracts from Nix's broad vocabulary of blazing little punk licks. Even the lyrics boast canny wit, as Nix bids farewell to "feeling heavy" on "The Day After the End of the World." The Powerchords, Avenue Rose and the Kilowatts open at 7:30 p.m. at the Agora Ballroom (5000 Euclid Ave., 216.881.6700). Tickets: $8. - Parker

Made Out of Babies

While its wildly eccentric, left-field post-metal already distinguishes Brooklyn-based Made Out of Babies, manic frontwoman Julie Christmas propels the group into the forefront of underground rock. Projecting her personality onto each song, Christmas is able to twist her vocal cords in such a way that each song sounds as if it's sung by a different vocalist - alternating yelps, screams, snarls and a surprisingly melodic singing voice that's, of all things, pretty. Musically, Made Out of Babies, like the Jesus Lizard before it, hovers around the edges of noise rock with a frenetic assault that threatens to fall apart at any moment, anchored precariously by Neurosis-like heavy riffs at the center of the maelstrom. Fittingly, the band's first two offerings were issued by Neurosis' own imprint, Neurot Recordings, while the recent release of the group's third full-length, The Ruiner, finds the four-piece pushing the experimental component of its sound even further. Chopped-up tracks fall into sludgy guitars, producing something that isn't quite metal but is certainly heavy. Splitting time with other underground luminaries such as Battle of Mice, Red Sparowes and tourmates Pigs, Made Out of Babies doesn't seem to be running out of ideas just yet. Pigs and Keelhaul open at 9 p.m. at the Grog Shop (2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., 216.321.5588). Tickets: $8. - Matt SullivanK

Billy Bob Thornton

The rocker came before the film star. Years before he took Karl "Sling Blade" Childers from the State Nervous Hospital to the silver screen and rendered multitudes of males insanely envious for a time while sporting Angelina as arm candy, Billy Bob Thornton paid his dues behind a drum kit. In between false starts to his acting career and a shot at big-league baseball, the Arkansas-bred actor/director/hell-raiser spent many nights on the bandstand, covering Creedence, ZZ Top or other such roots-bound fare; one Thornton outfit morphed into full-blown, fully bearded ZZ-tribute-band mode, touring and recording in the early '80s as Tres Hombres. Some years and much stardom later, Thornton returned to music with an edgy and idiosyncratic piece of alt-country: 2001's Private Radio. While Billy Bob the singer debuted respectably, Billy Bob the actor was never far away, playing the Southern bad boy to the hilt on a truck-stop phone call or painting a disturbing word-portrait of trans-generational sex. Both sides blended more on last year's Beautiful Door: Thornton's songs sound just as personal but less provocative, and his unpretentious Southern baritone meshes well with Graham Nash's harmonies. And he can still be found behind the drums. The show starts at 8 p.m. at the Beachland Ballroom (15711 Waterloo Rd., 216.383.1124). Tickets: $20 advance, $22 day of show. - Duane Verh

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